Christmas Past, A Story.
Well, it’s that time of the year once again where family and friends gather together to celebrate the festive period. This year may be different for a lot of people with the gathering being done over phone, text and video calls. Despite the year we’ve had and the lack of togetherness it’s the time of year to reflect, remember and realise what is important in our lives. My Christmas will be very different this year and I’m okay with that, I’d much rather my friends and family be safe and celebrate when we are able to safely but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss them, because I do, I really do miss them. (Shhh, don’t let them know that!!) It’s at this moment as I sit in bed, wearing my Christmas pj bottoms that are way too long for my short legs and my dad’s old jumper, that I remember a Christmas past. So how about you sit back, have a cup of tea and open that packet of chocolate you swore to keep for Christmas day.
It had been over six months since my parent’s split and I was at that point when I was pissed off with everyone and everything. I was seventeen, final year of sixth form and 2017 had already been the worst year of my teenager years. My Nan had a heart attack, my grandad had died, my dog had died, my mum was heartbroken, my dad had a new girlfriend and I wasn’t talking to him because of it, and I was on the verge of having a meltdown. I was working ridiculous hours at the florist and I just wanted to sleep all day Christmas than spend it pretending to be happy at my Nan’s house with the Daniels clan. I realise I sound like a Grinch but I loved Christmas, I loved winter it was my favourite season, the thick jumpers, cosy nights spent curled up on the sofa with my black Labrador, Bruno who has dog tourettes (trust me it’s a real thing).
Me and my brother woke up and exchanged gifts with mum who I had bought a nomination bracelet for her, something she had been wanting for ages, my brother got chocolate and so did I. We readied ourselves for the day at Nan’s house which we had always spent Christmas day at as far back as I could remember. It had always been a time where everyone stepped on each others toes and someone would fall out with the other and chaos would explode. The only difference this year would be that my dad wasn’t going to be there to help me through it.
Twelve o’clock the Daniels’ clan gather round at Nan’s house. Nan was sat in her armchair that lifted to a sitting position with the control button, Grandad was sat in his seat on the sofa, a glass of beer in his hand, fumbling with his hearing aids, turning them up or down was anyone’s guess.
“Come sit next to me, my favourite Granddaughter.” He said in his gravelly voice.
“I’m your only granddaughter, Grandad.” I said and sat in the small 1930s chair Nan had got from the vintage shop down the road, it was my favourite seat in the whole house. Mum sat next to Grandad feeling sorry for him because I wouldn’t sit next to him.
“Harry!!!!!” Aunty Karen shouted up the stairs causing us to cover our ears, that woman could shout and China would be able to hear. “Come on stop throwing a paddy and come downstairs.”
“What’s gone off?” Mum asked her sister, thick as thieves the two Daniels sisters were.
“Oh, we had an argument and now he won’t come downstairs.” Said Aunty Karen throwing herself down onto the sofa next to Mum.
“Go up and get him Graham.” Nan said to Grandad who grumbled that he wasn’t getting involved. After a few more attempts of Mum going up to get Harry in a way that started out as gentle and soon had her storming back down mumbling to herself and pouring another glass of beer. Archie tried but came back down shortly after without a word to say.
“Phoebe go up and get him.” Nan said. I climbed up the stairs and opened the spare bedroom which I used to sleep in every Saturday night before I turned sixteen. Laid on the bed strolling through his phone was Harry, my older cousin, by four years, who in my Grandparent’s eyes can do no wrong. He was also responsible for the years of pain he caused me in our younger years, teasing me, he would always put me in the net when we played football and would deliberately kick the ball at my face or at my lady parts. Once, he picked me up by the legs and closed me into the dog food bin. What I am trying to say is that Harry was my tormentor for most of my childhood, he had a new girlfriend that year who was spending it with her family instead of ours. Harry had never bothered with gifts so no one ever expected anything, Nan made the excuse that he was a working lad and that he needed to save his money for himself, Mum would always raise the point that I do work too and manage to get everyone gift.
“Phoebe just leave me alone.” He said.
“I will if you promise to come downstairs.” I looked round the room, the old video tape TV in the corner, the dvd player beside it which I would play my grandparent’s Only Fools and Horses dvds on repeat.
“Please just come down Harry.”
“I’m not coming down if she’s down there.”
“Oh, come on Harry she’s your mother, yeah you had a fight but it’s Christmas. Can’t you just pretend to be happy.” I pleaded.
“Is that what you’re doing?” He raised his eyebrow.
“What do you mean, I’m having the best time!” I said sarcastically.
“You look it.”
“Look Harry. We’ve all got shit but just for the next five hours you’re stuck with us so why don’t you just stop acting like a spoilt brat and go downstairs and be merry bloody Christmas!” I threw my hands up exasperated at him. He really was spoiling it. The sound of footsteps on the stairs told us that Nan was walking up the stairs.
“Harry?” She croaked up the stairs, she couldn’t walk fast but refused to have help or a stair lift installed.
“Look you’ve made Nan come up now.” I said.
“Fine I’m coming down alright?”
As usual we all sat round the fireplace, drinks in hand, except me, Archie and Harry who were drinking pop, and looked at the pile of presents on the floor. Nan’s wrapping standing out above the rest, she always had ‘posh’ paper that featured stags, a delicate pattern or elegant lettering.
“Do the honours Harry?” Nan said, Harry kneeled down next to the pile and just like any other year, he picked up a present at random, read the tag out and handed it to the person. We’d then all watch that person open the gift and say their thanks. If it was clothing there was a rule that you had to wear it immediately and wasn’t allowed to take it off till after all the gifting was done. Mum and Aunty Karen wore their usual matching scarves and their new perfume that they got every year without fail. Mum with ghost and Aunty Karen with Daisy. Grandad got his whiskey to add to his collection next to the telly. Me, Archie and Harry with our pjs and a Terry’s chocolate orange from Aunty Karen, the only gift we ever got from her and would always meet with disapproval from the rest of the adults. Unknown to them of course, Aunty Karen would always stuff a twenty-pound note in the packaging. She worked a lot of hours and barely had time for herself so I never felt without. Once gifts were exchanged Harry handed out one last one.
“This is just something from me and Rebecca.” He said shyly, handing me a rectangle wrapped parcel. I took it from him, genuinely surprised, surely this is some kind of a joke, I looked at everyone else, Mum shrugged, just as clueless as me. I peeled back the wrapping paper to reveal two books of Where’s the Wookie? A Star Wars version of Where’s Wally. I stared at the books in my hand, the first gift Harry had ever given me.
Christmas dinner was to be served at three in the afternoon so Grandad did his annual trip to the local pub, it was a ‘man’ thing. Grandad tried to get Archie to join him and Harry but he was having none of it and stayed at the house with me. Nan was sweating in the kitchen, the work surfaces taller than her, she was stressing about the cooking, pans cluttered the sides, her short hair stuck to her forehead. Mum took the apron off her and threw a spare one to Aunty Karen and told her to sit down. Nan refused to sit down until they both raised their voices at her to stay out of the kitchen, that they had it under control. Me and Archie set the table, pulling it out so everyone could fit round it while Nan sat on the armchair the radio playing festive tunes in the background.
“Phoebe?” Nan said, “Go get the two spare chairs from upstairs for dinner.”
“We only need the one Nan.” I replied.
“Graham, Me, Karen, Clare, Harry, Phoebe, Archie.” She counted on her fingers, “There’s someone missing.”
“No there isn’t Nan, there’s only seven of us this year.” I said, a lump in my throat.
“Dad’s not here.” I wanted him to be, for everything to go back to normal but how could anything go back to normal after everything that had happened.
“Oh, I’m sorry, what am I like?” Nan said, then added with a hint of amusement in her eyes. “At least there’s more room for your bat elbows.”
Needing a drink, I took my glass to the fridge, filling up the glass with cold water. In the corner of my eye, I saw Mum pouring red wine into a pint glass, the red wine that Nan had bought to go with the meal. The very expensive red wine that made me cough when she told me the price of. Nan had told me not to tell Grandad how much it had cost and instead tell him it was the cheap stuff; Nan had a habit of buying expensive things and hiding the price from Grandad. The poor sod was a self-employed carpenter in his late sixties, the way Nan shopped, he’d be working for life.
Mum caught my stare and held up a finger to her lips, Aunty Karen followed suit and poured herself a pint of the red wine.
“What are you two doing?” I hissed; my eyes narrowed at them both. Their eyes were heavy and their smiles were wide. In other words, they were both shitfaced.
“Shush, it’s Christmas.” Aunty Karen danced in the kitchen.
“Come on Mayo cheer up.” Mum said taking a glug of wine, “You need to relax, here have some wine.”
I pushed the glass back to her, “You know I don’t like red wine.”
She took the glass back to her lips while Aunty Karen took the meat out of the oven, turkey, lamb and a small joint of gammon for me and Harry who both hated turkey, mainly because it was always dry. The vegetables were boiling away on the hob, the juices from the turkey in a pan ready for Aunty Karen to make into gravy, she always made the best gravy. But there was something missing, I looked round the small kitchen that was barely big enough for two people, never mind a third. Everything was there, the pigs in blankets were there, the roast potatoes, onions and parsnips were there, everything was there except.
“Where the bloody hell is the Yorkshire pudding mix?” I said, outraged, Mum and Aunty Karen both paused, wine in hands and turned to me.
“Don’t get angry at me,” Mum said.
“Your Nan said she didn’t want to bother with them this year.” Aunty Karen added. What? We always had Yorkshire puddings on our Christmas dinner, it was tradition, they were literally the best part of the meal! What did Nan mean she wasn’t going to bother with puddings this year? Had the woman gone mad?! I left the kitchen as calm as I could, took a sip from my cold water that was doing nothing to cool the anger I felt.
“Nan why aren’t we doing Yorkshire puddings?” I said, making no attempt to hide my irritation. “We always have puddings!”
“Mine don’t rise in that oven anymore.” She said, shaking her head.
“That’s because you open the oven to early mum!” Aunty Karen shouted from the kitchen.
“Well.” Nan raised her head, “If you want them, make ‘em yourselves.”
There was an audible gasp from the rest of us, Nan not making puddings was the equivalent of finding out someone was not the father on Jeremy Kyle. Our jaws were dropped, silence throughout the house except from the faint sound of the radio in the kitchen. The front door opened and in walked Harry and Grandad who stopped in their tracks when they saw the rest of us staring at Nan in utter disbelief.
“What’s going off?” Harry said unsure whether he should stay in the dining room or go into the living room.
“Nan’s not making Yorkshire puddings.” I said shrugging.
“What?” Harry exclaimed, “But you always make puddings!”
“Not this year.” She said, “We’ve got everything else.”
Harry walked to the fridge and took out a drink before mumbling off into the living room about how unbelievable and unfair it was to not have puddings. Archie followed Harry into the other room as did Grandad after he took a can of beer from the fridge.
The plating of the dinner was probably one of the most stressful things that I’ve been put through. Nan was forced to sit down at her place next to Grandad, a pillow on her chair so she can reach the table, something I also had to do which gained me a cheeky comment from Archie who thought it was hilarious I couldn’t reach the table because of my shortness. Grandad took his place at the head of the table as did Harry on the other side, Archie sat where Dad used to, on Harry’s left. I was on Harry’s right, next to Aunty Karen who sat next to Nan. Aunty Karen and Mum put the veg and trimmings in the middle of the table and carried out the different meats on trays going round the table so we could take what we wanted. Harry got annoyed with Mum trying to give him turkey while Archie’s cheeks blew out when Mum tried to encourage him to add peas to his plate. Archie had never liked peas; Christmas wasn’t the day it was going to change that. Mum got angry with Archie because his tone of voice was too aggressive. Nan was sweating, complaining it was too hot and wanted the back door opening, Grandad told her that the back door was to remain shut because it was too cold outside.
“Pass the carrots.”
“Can I have the roasties.”
“Where’s the pigs in blankets?”
“Cauliflower cheese please!”
“Mash, can I have the mash, no, not that!”
“Who’s took all the pigs in blankets?!”
“Can someone pass me a beer?”
Mum and Aunty Karen poured themselves more red wine, and sat at the table. The table was crammed with food, moving the drinks onto the windowsill to make room for the gravy jugs. Finally, we were all sat round the table, together, everything had finally come together. We said our thanks to everyone who cooked and tucked into our food. The room fell into silence, the sound of cutlery clanging against the plates, drinks being slurped, Grandad’s loud munching earning him a smack from Nan who told him to pack it in.
“Did you put the wine into the gravy?” I asked. The sharp pain of Aunty Karen’s foot stamping down onto my foot silenced me immediately, Mum eyed me sternly as if to say shut the fuck up now. Instead of taking the hint I gave her a look that said, I know you didn’t put the wine in the gravy because you drank it all!
“This lamb is lovely Mum.” Aunty Karen said to Nan, who was wafting herself down with the napkin.
“What was that Karen?”
“I said,” She slurred, “That the lamb was nice!”
“Bit dry for me.” Moaned Nan, pushing her plate away from her she added, “I’m full.”
Grandad looked up from his plate and surveyed the table, his bushy eyebrows furrowed. “Where’s the Yorkshire puddings?”
I cleared away the plates with the help from Archie who realised the only reason why I was clearing away the table was to get away from the people around the table. Grandad’s deafness meant everyone else was talking like they were in a nightclub on a Friday night and with the way their cheeks glowed and eyes drooped told me they were very drunk. I was scraping the food off the plates into the bin, stacking them on the side for Archie who was washing them. Harry came in carrying the leftover food, his hands full.
“Where do you want these?” He asked me, pots cluttered every surface in the small kitchen. I took the veg and shoved them into a crack in the corner. Harry stood still in the kitchen and looked at me expectantly, “Give me something to do so I don’t have to go back in there.”
“Dry the pots if you want?” I smiled at him and I saw a flicker of a glint of relief in his eyes. The three of us worked together to clear up, singing along to the radio when Fairytale of New York came on, Harry voicing the male lead, me the female and Archie singing along to any of the lyrics he remembered. The voices from the dining room got higher and higher, the sound of the fridge opening and closing. I was cleaning the hob while I told the other two where the plates, bowls and pans went as they never cooked in Nan’s kitchen, my many afternoons spent baking pies and tuna puffs gave me wide knowledge of the workings of the kitchen. Mum stood at the kitchen door frame, her hand holding her up.
“Awe my three babies cleaning up aren’t you good kids.” She cooed, and tried to pull us all into a hug, I dodged and said I needed the toilet. I hated hugs, especially when hugging my mum led to her crying, every time we hugged, she burst into tears.
“Shall we get the cheesecake out?” Nan’s croaky voice called out.
I grabbed the plates while Harry got the spoons and Archie got the cheesecake and cream out of the fridge, we placed them down on the table and then all of a sudden shit hit the fan.
“What’s wrong with me?!” One screamed.
“How dare you!” Another did.
“Girls calm down please!” Nan pleaded.
“Oh, you both need shut your gobs!” Grandad grunted, pointing his hand at Aunty Karen.
“I’m gone!” Aunty Karen stormed off upstairs, funnily enough to the same room where Harry had his paddy earlier in the day. Tears ran down Mum’s face, Grandad slammed the living room door behind him letting us know he had locked himself into the living room, not to be disturbed.
Harry and Archie’s face of puzzlement seemed to match mine, I mouthed, what the hell? and Archie shrugged.
“Unbelievable!” Mum breathed, “He’s actually unbelievable!”
“Harry go check on your mum.” Nan cocked her head at the stairs, he did as he was told, not wanting to get on Nan’s bad side.
“Honestly he’s can be awful at times!” Mum shook her head, anger flooded through her.
“Well, you did both drink all the wine.” Nan mumbled.
“And he drank all the beer!”
“I’m off back into the kitchen.” Archie said under his breath and I took a seat at the table as I listened to why the outburst had happened. Someone had made a poor joke that someone had took offence too, someone had asked where all the wine was and they had both said they didn’t know and then the tensions got higher and more jabs were made and to top it all off, voices were raised. Feeling were hurt and everyone couldn’t stand to be in the same room as each other. In other words, a classic Daniels Christmas. I opened packaging of the cake and began to eat straight from it with the small teaspoon, ten minutes must have past when Aunty Karen reentered the room with Harry, who towered over her shortness. Nan called Grandad into the room, I ate into the vanilla cheesecake, on the edge of my seat, not knowing what was a about to happen.
“I’m sorry Dad, you really hurt me.” Aunty Karen said.
“Clare?” Nan pushed.
Mum coughed, “Sorry Dad.”
“Graham?” Nan said sternly.
“Come here girls.” He said and they walked into his arms and just like that, all was forgiven. They took their seats at the table once again, tears wiped clean and tensions gone, Aunty Karen rubbed her hands together.
“Cheesecake?” She smiled.
“About that…” I began.
“Oh, for god’s sake.” Mum said exasperated.
I may not have had the perfect Christmas that year and I know for a fact the ones that followed were much better. My relationship with my Dad has improved so much, he’s my best friend and his girlfriend at the time, who is now my step-mum is just amazing. The Daniels clan is just as crazy, emotional and funny as they were back then. Yes, we may argue and not get on all the time, but what I would do to be in their company and be a part of the madness all over again. I’m fortunate to have a family who are there for me even if I won’t be under the same roof as them this year.
So however, you’re spending Christmas this year, make sure you check in with your loved ones, friends and family, you’d be amazed how much a phone call, a message, a letter can lift a person. Merry Christmas to you, the person reading this right now, I wish you all the luck for the new year.